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'This decision is a blight on the Austrian judicial system'

Fighting Austrian court and heartbreak, UK mom renews decade-long battle to see kids

Whirlwind romance turns nightmarish for Beth Alexander as judges in Vienna continue to bar all access to her twin 12-year-old sons; UK Chief Rabbi Mirvis gives unwavering support

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

LONDON — It is every mother’s nightmare. For more than a decade, Beth Alexander has been largely unable to see her two sons as she has fought a complex and seemingly never-ending legal battle to gain custody of the twin boys through the Austrian courts.

Alexander’s story — a whirlwind romance that turned into a bitter tussle over her children, allegations of foul play in Viennese legal circles and a dramatic intervention by Britain’s chief rabbi — has attracted international headlines, while her plight has won her strong support in the UK Jewish community and parliament.

But, as she launches a new campaign to gain access to her children, the Austrian judge overseeing the case has rebuffed Alexander’s latest legal efforts — and gone a step further, barring all contact between mother and children — saying it is not in the 12-year-olds’ interest to see their mother.

Alexander, who grew up in a Jewish family in Manchester in northwest England, met her future husband while still a student at Cambridge University in 2006. Michael Schlesinger, who had recently qualified as a doctor, soon proposed and the couple were married within months. Though Alexander says the plan was to eventually move to England, she believes that Schlesinger never intended to actually make the move from his native Austria, where they had settled.

The marriage, which Alexander calls a “sham,” soon began to fall apart. “He couldn’t cope with being married,” she told The Times of Israel. Even when she became pregnant, Alexander says, her husband showed “no signs of excitement.”

Less than a year after S. and B. were born, Alexander says she was forced to spend a night at a women’s shelter. When she returned home, she alleges, her husband unsuccessfully tried to have her sectioned, claiming she was mentally ill. Schlesinger, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, has previously denied Alexander’s allegations of abuse.

The couple separated soon after and the children were assigned to live with Alexander, with Schlesinger initially given only supervised access. His attempts to gain custody floundered at first but, just two months after turning them down, the judge executed a dramatic u-turn.

In July 2011, Schlesinger won full and immediate custody, with the court ruling that “the father is better suited to exercise custody and to promote the welfare of the child” and that, despite having “a good bond” with them, “the mother has only a limited capacity to bring up the children.” The court also assessed that Schlesinger was likely to be more cooperative than his wife in ensuring “contact with the family of the other parent.”

There was to be no preparation or transition, nor were social services involved; instead, the police turned up at Alexander’s Vienna home that afternoon and her two-year-old sons were taken away. She is still clearly haunted by the memory.

Beth Alexander and her son in an undated photo. (Courtesy Beth Alexander)

“It was done in the most brutal, violent way. It was horrific. My lawyer was away on holiday. The consul at the Embassy who was dealing with the case was also away. It was barbaric. They were just wrenched out of their high-chairs,” she recalls. Her parents encouraged her to briefly return to the UK. “I was in such a state. I was hysterical and traumatized.”

Alexander continues: “I was so trusting. I want my story to be a warning to other women. People think it’s very romantic to go and live in another country. They don’t realize the implications if you have a child abroad. You have no rights, you won’t be protected.”

For two months, Alexander was unable to see the children amid legal wrangling over her visitation rights. After that she was initially only allowed to see the children twice a week for a couple of hours on supervised visits.

Beth Alexander and her former husband on their wedding day (Courtesy Beth Alexander)

It is, says Alexander, “an open secret” in Vienna that a senior judge with connections to Schlesinger’s family spoke with the judge overseeing the case. That intervention, Alexander believes, altered the whole future direction of the case.

For more than two years, Alexander fought through the courts to both overturn the custody decision and gain greater access to her children. But even small victories proved pyrrhic. A court-ordered psychiatric report was carried out on Alexander — by a psychologist who, it is alleged, lacked the necessary skills in adult psychiatry — which appeared to indicate she had impaired cognitive skills and reduced parenting abilities. However, when she presented the court with two further reports rebutting that false assessment, these were ignored. So, too, was an appeal court ruling that similar psychiatric reports should be conducted on the children and the father.

Alexander says she was not just fighting for her rights as a mother but also out of deep concern about her boys’ welfare. The children, she says, often seemed “disturbed” and “like zombies,” they suffered from stomach problems and were crying all the time, and, she discovered, one of the boys had self-harmed at school (a fact the school allegedly did not report).

Alexander’s bewilderment about the basis for the legal decisions deepened when, in January 2014, the Austrian Supreme Court turned down her application for custody with no explanation beyond the one word “rejected.”

However, she had at least begun to persuade the courts to grant her further, unsupervised access. In 2014, for instance, she was finally allowed to have her sons for overnight visits and the following year she was given permission to take them on holiday.

She recalls a “fantastic” holiday she, her parents and their grandchildren spent in the Alps in the summer of 2016. “The children were so happy, they thrived. They’d never had so much freedom. We did so many fun things.”

But this apparent progress ground to an abrupt halt soon afterward when her husband went back to the courts and Alexander’s access was dramatically scaled back, with supervised visitation again imposed.

“After all those years fighting through the system, it was back to square one,” Alexander says. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”

She labels the supervised visitation that was now on offer a form of “child abuse.” “It’s the most humiliating thing to go through,” Alexander believes. “You have to sit in a center, a woman is there writing notes. I didn’t want my children to see me that way, like I was a criminal.”

Beth Alexander with her sons and parents on vacation in this undated photo. (Courtesy Beth Alexander)

Distraught, at her parents’ insistence, she returned to the UK. Alexander, a lecturer at a university in Vienna, decided to retrain as a family lawyer.

“I studied law to empower myself,” she says. “I can’t describe the frustration; I was going from one lawyer to the next and each one couldn’t seem to get me anywhere. I just thought: I am going to become a lawyer, both to help my own case but also to help other parents.”

For five years, Alexander didn’t see her sons. She sent them presents and cards, tried to arrange regular WhatsApp video calls and bought the boys laptops so she could email them (she’s not sure whether her sons received them).

In the UK she was, however, aided by high-profile supporters. In 2014, sympathetic parliamentarians — including Tory MPs Mike Freer and Matthew Offord and Labour MPs Graham Stringer and Ivan Lewis — staged a debate in the House of Commons.

Stringer, in whose Manchester constituency Alexander’s parents lived at the time, told MPs: “I have great respect for the Austrian state… I like Austria, but the decision in Beth Alexander’s case is a blight on the Austrian judicial system and I hope that it will be put right.”

Lewis called the case “one of the worst miscarriages of justice I have ever experienced during my long period as an elected representative.”

“Beth… has been falsely and cruelly labeled mentally ill and an unfit mother, labels both disproved by independent professionals,” he added.

Beth Alexander and her sons on vacation in this undated photo. (Courtesy Beth Alexander)

Alexander’s cause has also been taken up by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, whose leaders met with the Austrian ambassador to London to raise their concerns. “I fear that a serious miscarriage has occurred,” Jonathan Arkush, then the board’s vice president, said after the December 2013 meeting.

Alexander has also won the support of Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. Shortly after the Austrian Supreme Court’s abrupt ruling in 2014, he provided her with an open letter expressing his concern about the court’s “unusual decision to deprive a mother of the right to raise her children.”

“More significantly, I am concerned about reports that suggest that the twins’ growth and development are suffering, while the mother is not included in any way in matters relating to her children’s health, welfare and education,” he wrote.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that Mirvis had flown to Vienna in 2018 with Arkush, by then the Board’s president, to intercede on Alexander’s behalf. The men met with the twins and leaders of the Jewish community in Vienna. Schlesinger, however, reportedly refused an invitation to meet with Mirvis and the chief rabbi’s attempt to at least secure Alexander a regular weekly call with her sons ultimately came to nothing.

Alexander is highly critical of the manner in which sections of the Jewish community in the Austrian capital allegedly closed ranks behind her former husband and, she claims, sought to undermine her battle. It is a “misogynistic, patriarchal and tight-knit community,” she claims. “As a foreigner without an understanding of the language or culture, I didn’t stand a chance.”

Beth Alexander and her sons in an undated photo. (Courtesy Beth Alexander)

That charge is rejected by Oskar Deutsch, the president of the IKG, which represents the Jewish community in Vienna. In a letter to Mirvis last month, he wrote: “The ruling over the children’s custody is a legal one and has been made by independent Austrian courts. The Jewish community did not participate in the court case beside the fact many members individually helped her before, during and after the hearings.”

The Austrian government has similarly defended the handling of the case. In response to an email from one of Alexander’s supporters, the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs said that the case was “conducted by independent Austrian courts of law, their final decision being based on objective consideration of both parents’ positions and, above all, the children’s wellbeing.”

Last year, Alexander attempted to utilize a new opportunity provided by Britain’s departure from the European Union to pursue her case through The Hague-based International Child Abduction and Contact Unit. She hoped that her application for regular phones calls and a visit in Vienna every other month would be determined by a new judge, who would be looking at the case independently for the first time. But the case ended up being decided once again by the Viennese judge who has overseen it since the outset. The justice rejected the application and, claiming that the sons did not want to see their mother, said it was not in their best interests for Alexander to be granted access.

Alexander is, however, taking this latest disappointment in stride.

Beth Alexander with her sons and their grandparents in an undated photo. (Courtesy Beth Alexander)

In January, a new campaign was launched and an online event was addressed by supporters including Mirvis, Offord, the editor of the Jewish Telegraph, Paul Harris, and the chief executive of Jewish Women’s Aid, Naomi Dickson.

“All of us who know Beth,” the chief rabbi told participants in the launch, “know her to be a loving, caring and giving person and, most importantly of all, a wonderful and loving mother. The fact that she has been separated from her children and has not been part of their lives for so long has been a most terrible tragedy.”

Alexander says the judge’s decision to order no contact is the reason for the new campaign. “Had she given me even minimal access — a weekly phone call — I probably would have stayed quiet. It was the total injustice of no contact which prompted me to go public again.”

Alexander is also now readying a new legal challenge with a request for sole custody. Her former husband, she claims, based his initial applications on the basis that he would be the more cooperative, tolerant parent who would allow contact and access and effectively co-parent with his ex-wife. The evidence of the last decade, she believes, has raised a serious question mark over that pledge.

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